I only knew where one exit from this place was, and that was one of the directions that people were coming from. So I did the only thing I could in that moment and ran for one of the doors leading deeper into the building. The guy who had been chained up was right on my heels as we sprinted through the open doorway and found ourselves in a carpeted hall.
It was pretty dark in here aside from some emergency lighting. But I could see enough to notice the stairwell to our left leading up. Hearing the sound of a lot of people storming their way into the room behind us, I pivoted that way and started up. But first, I made a bit of black appear on my chest while shooting another bit of black onto the guy behind me.
The guy stumbled, clearly taken aback when he realized there was no sound coming from him. Turning to him, I made a sharp jabbing motion up the stairs before grabbing his arm to pull. We could already hear people shouting back and forth in the other room about what the hell just happened. Thankfully, the guy got over his surprise quickly enough and we ran silently up the stairs.
On the way, I finally had a chance to really look at the man I was busy rescuing. He looked like he was a few years older than me, maybe just out of high school. He was a pale, thin guy just under six feet tall, with scraggly brown hair that was in bad need of being cut and styled. Or at least combed. He had a goatee and had clearly not shaved the rest of his hair for a few days, given the stubble. His dark green eyes were wide with panic.
Hitting the second floor landing, we pivoted to go up to the third. Unfortunately, that was when the door just above us was slammed open and a guy with a gun burst through. He saw us immediately, his weapon snapping toward me.
Somehow, I was faster. A shot of blue paint went from my outstretched hand to the floor at the guy’s feet. It instantly launched him up into the ceiling, making his gunshot go completely over both of our heads.
The guy dropped, his gun falling while he groaned from the force of being hurled headfirst into the ceiling. But the damage was done. I heard people shouting below and running for us. So much for doing this quietly.
We ran past the guy, hopping over his outstretched arm before continuing up the stairs. I wasn’t exactly sure where we were going aside from up, but at least it was away from all the angry guys with guns. For now, at least. Once we ran out of building… well, I’d figure something out then. Hopefully.
By the time we reached the fourth stairwell, the guy blurted, “Look, man, I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing this for, but where are we going? I mean, thanks, seriously. But there’s only so many stairs in this place.”
I couldn’t exactly be annoyed, considering it was the same thought I had just been having. Shooting the man a quick glance, I gave him an exaggerated shrug while deepening my voice a little bit. Between that and the way the mask and helmet together muffled it, I would probably keep passing as a guy. “I’m kind of making this up as I go. So if you’ve got a plan, I’d love to hear it. Maybe we could ask those guys.” I gestured grandly back the way our pursuers were coming from. “They sound pretty helpful.”
The man paused (verbally, neither of us slowed down physically) before admitting, “Good point.”
So, we kept running. Running away from what sounded like an army of guys who seemed awfully goddamn intent on catching him. I still didn’t know why they wanted him so badly, or what was going on. And there wasn’t time to ask.
With the sound of stampeding bad guys just a little bit behind us, we reached the top floor. I looked around quickly before spotting a door labeled ‘roof access.’ It was locked, but a quick burst of purple paint let me kick it open and I half-dragged my companion through.
One short flight of stairs later, and we were on the roof of this eight story building. The guy with me put both hands out and turned in a circle while blurting, “Now what?”
Instead of answering, I ran to the edge of the roof. He muttered something and followed after me. Below, we could hear the bad guys starting up the last set of stairs to catch up with us.
Leaning over the edge, I looked down. There was another building next door that was about half the height of this one.
The guy at my side started to ask something. But there wasn’t time to listen. There wasn’t time for me to explain anything. The bad guys were already bursting out onto the roof. We were out of time, period.
So, instead of explaining, I shot orange paint onto the guy, covering his upper torso as much as I could. Then I used purple paint on my arms, caught him by the back, and gave him a hard hoist and shove. His horrified scream filled the air as he plummeted.
Oh God, oh God. Please work. If it didn’t, I was about to fit in with my family pretty well by becoming a murderer.
To buy a little time, I spun back to where the bad guys were and shot a wide spray of blue paint. It covered several men who had already emerged, sending them flying in various directions as they were repelled from each other.
Good enough. Spinning back, I hurled myself off the roof with a scream of my own. Only in mid-air did I mentally stop to hope that I hadn’t just run out of paint.
I hadn’t. Spots of orange appeared on my feet and legs as I dropped to the roof below, crashing into a roll that took me tumbling end over end before coming to a stop on my back.
I lay there for a second before the sound of heavy, panicked breathing reached me. Turning my head a bit, I saw the guy I had rescued, laying there with his eyes wide open, his face pale. “What the f-fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck was that? What the fuck was that?!” With each repetition, he grew a bit louder.
“It’s called rescuing you,” I replied simply before pushing myself up. “Do you want to complain, or do you want to get out of here?”
He chose the latter, scrambling up as well. Together, we ran to the roof access door for this building. Above and behind us, guys were already appearing. A couple shouted when they saw us. But they had no way to catch up.
That, however, didn’t stop them from opening fire. A few bullets ricocheted off the roof around us, and I let out a squeak of fear before I could stop myself. Grabbing the door, I yanked it open and unceremoniously shoved the guy through before joining him.
Together, we raced down the stairs of this new building. Huffing a bit beside me, the guy stammered, “Th-they’re not gonna stop just like that, you know. They won’t just give up.”
Realizing that I finally had time to ask the question that had been bothering me this whole time, I demanded, “Why the hell are they so obsessed with you? This is insane. You weren’t just being mugged or something.”
“Being mugged?” the guy echoed, his gaze jerking to me as we hit the last set of stairs. “Are you serious? You don’t even know what’s going on?”
My head shook quickly. “Dude, I’m kind of new to this. I thought I was rescuing you from a couple random thugs, not a whole pissed off army.”
The guy visibly flinched a little before nodding. We had reached the front door of the building by then. It was locked, but that didn’t mean much when I brought a splattering of purple across my chest and shoved at it. The door broke open while an alarm began to blare. Great, that was just what we needed.
Wait. Actually, it was. Maybe the idea of the cops coming would scare off our pursuers. Not likely, of course. But I’d take anything at that point. At the very least, it might be a distraction.
As we ran onto the sidewalk and, without needing to discuss it, pivoted away from the building we had just escaped from to run together down the street, the guy started to explain.
”Okay, it’s about my brother. They think I know where he is, but I don’t. Not that they’d believe me. Ashton and me aren’t exactly on the best of terms.”
Grabbing the guy by the arm, I pulled him down an alley to get off the main street. “Why do they want your brother?”
The guy grimaced, muttering, “Because he’s a fucking idiot.” Belatedly, he clarified, “You know that bank robbery at Prime International a couple days ago? The attempted bank robbery, I mean.”
Blinking at him, I shook my head. “Uh, not really? I’ve been a little busy.”
He gave me a brief look as we turned the corner of the alley and kept going. “Okay, well, it was a pretty stupid attempt. I don’t know if you know, but that place is run by La Casa. It’s one of their banks. And a few low ranking idiots from the Ninety-Niners tried to rob it.”
Nodding slowly, I agreed, “Yeah, that does sound pretty stupid. But what does that have to do with your brother? Is he one of those idiots?”
Again, the guy grimaced. “Worse. He’s the idiot who talked those idiots into trying it. See, Ashton worked at the bank. He convinced those guys he could help them get away with it and make a name for themselves. You know, boost their cred in the gang. But he was just using them. He waited until everyone was distracted by the morons, and then he took something out of one of the safe deposit boxes in there. I think his first plan was to blame the theft on them. But they got caught too quick.”
We kept going, crossing another street to get as far from that place as possible while I murmured, “Let me guess, it wasn’t just some cash that he grabbed.”
He shrugged a bit helplessly. “Man, I don’t know what it was. But they’re all pissed off right now. There’s some kind of huge reward for his ass. That’s why those guys grabbed me. They thought I could tell them where he is. But you know what, I don’t have a fucking clue. No one’s going to believe that, though. That reward? Whatever Ashton took, it was worth putting a million dollar bounty on his head.”
That made me stumble a bit. Even growing up as I had, I knew that was a lot of money for most people. “No wonder those guys are so obsessed with catching you. What the hell did he take out of that bank?”
He offered me a new helpless shrug. “Fuck if I know. But it’s got all of those guys pissed off beyond belief. He kicked the goddamn hornets nest and left me to deal with it. He’s probably already skipped town. Which is what I need to do. I’ve gotta get the hell out of Dodge.”
He was right, I knew. For a million bounty, none of those guys were going to listen if he just told them he didn’t know where his brother was. His only chance was to leave town, at least until things calmed down a bit.
“Do you have a car or something?” I asked. “You know, a way to get out of here.”
He nodded. “Sure, I’ve got a car. But it’s at my house, which is where those guys grabbed me. And I’m pretty sure they’ve still got guys there. They’re tearing the place apart looking for anything about Ashton. They’d probably notice if I showed up to grab the car. And I’d take a bus or a train, but I’m just gonna guess that there’s guys watching those places too. Like I said, these people are obsessed.”
Slowly, I nodded. “Then you’ll have to take a cab or an Uber or something to get out of town. Get thirty or forty miles away and catch a bus somewhere else to go wherever you need to.” Reaching into the pocket of my costume, I took out the two hundred dollars that I had left. “Here. You can probably get pretty far with that. It’s a start, anyway.”
The guy stared at me, mouth open. “What the hell do you–why… who are you? What do you call yourself?” He still hadn’t taken the money. “Paintboy?”
“I… uhh, don’t actually have a name right now,” I admitted. I’d been a bit too focused on other things to worry about that. “I doubt I’ll go with Paintboy, though.”
His head shook. “Whoever you are, you don’t have to give me that. You’ve done enough. I’ll find some way to get out of here.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “this way. Here.” Taking his wrist, I pushed the money into the guy’s hand. “Take it and get the hell out of town. After everything that just happened back there, I really don’t want to think about those guys finding you, okay? I… you need it more than I do. Just go.”
He took the money, swallowing a little while staring at me as if there was a dozen things he wanted to say. “My uhh… my name’s Josh. Josh Austin. I just… I just wanted you to know. I’ll find a way to pay you back for this, for everything you’ve done tonight.”
Meeting his gaze, I replied, “Pay me back by getting out of town and staying hidden. You have a place to go?”
“Yeah,” he confirmed. “I’ve got a friend who lives down in Illinois. I can hide out there for awhile. But you know, you kind of stand out like that. And if I’m gone, those guys that are after me… they’re gonna start coming after you instead. Especially if you make a name for yourself. You’ll be a target.”
“I know.” Trying to sound confident, I added, “Better me than you.” Even as I said it, my heart was hammering so much I was almost sure he could hear it. Shoving the fear aside, I gestured. “We’re probably far enough now for you to call a cab or whatever. Take the cash, get out of town. Go see your friend. Keep your head down. Stay safe.”
With that, I looked around once more to make sure we were alone before pivoting. Clicking my heels together to make the wheels come out of my skates, I took off back through the alley we had come through. As I went, Josh called, “When you pick a name, make it a good one! You deserve something better than Paintboy!”
I didn’t actually go very far. Instead, I waited until I was just around the corner before using red paint to climb my way to the roof of the two story building. Then I painted myself black, rushed to the edge, and lay down to peek down at the guy.
Part of it was to make sure he actually made it into the cab and out of town without being caught again. But I also had to admit that another part was to see what he did when I wasn’t there. There was a part of me who wondered if he was lying about any part of what he’d said. After everything I had found out over the past couple of days, trusting people wasn’t exactly at the top of my mind.
If he was making any part of it up, he didn’t give himself away. The guy fidgeted back and forth a bit before taking a phone from his pocket. I couldn’t see what he was doing with it, but he seemed to be summoning an Uber.
Sure enough, he was. I knew for sure a minute later, because I recognized the car that pulled up, and the driver inside. It was Adrian, the same guy who had driven me the other night, and had turned out to be a custodian at my school.
Okay, so this Josh guy really did summon an Uber. I heard him speak as he leaned down, showing the money I’d given him. “Hundred bucks enough to get out of town?”
Whatever Adrian said, it must have been an affirmative, because Josh opened the back door and got in. The door closed after him, before the car pulled away from the curb.
Straightening, I watched the vehicle until it turned the corner at the end of the street. As it disappeared from view, I let out a breath that I hadn’t realized I was holding.
It was done. He was gone. Whatever else happened next, at least I had managed to save one guy, who at least seemed to be innocent. Maybe it wasn’t a lot, but it was something. I had actually accomplished something that I could feel proud of.
That was what I was going to do, I realized. I couldn’t actually stop my family right now, not until I understood more. And maybe not even then. But I could make my own choices. Maybe my family were bad guys, but I could choose to be better. Until I actually had some actual idea of what to do about that whole… other situation, I could just help people.
Maybe it wouldn’t amount to much. Maybe I could never make up for everything bad that the rest of my family had done, and would continue to do. Maybe no matter how much good I did, it would never be enough. But you know what? I was sure as hell going to try.
And Josh was right, I should probably start by coming up with a name.